How liberal arts students can outclass some Ivy-Leaguers

Published 6:00 pm Friday, March 22, 2019

The first undergraduate I recruited at LaGrange College for political science had turned down Harvard to come to us.  People thought this highly successful student was crazy, but in the wake of the recent FBI investigation of parents who paid so much for their students to get into such “elite” schools, I am not so sure that was a bad move for this student who graduated with honors and is now making a difference out in California.

“In November 2002, the Quarterly Journal of Economics published a landmark paper by the economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger that reached a startling conclusion,” wrote Derek Thompson with The Atlantic in December 2018. “For most students, the salary boost from going to a super-selective school is ‘generally indistinguishable from zero’ after adjusting for student characteristics, such as test scores. In other words, if Mike and Drew have the same SAT scores and apply to the same colleges, but Mike gets into Harvard and Drew doesn’t, they can still expect to earn the same income throughout their careers. Despite Harvard’s international fame and energetic alumni outreach, somebody like Mike would not experience an observable ‘Harvard effect.’”

Conservative commentator Thomas Sowell agrees.

“One of the biggest fallacies about academic institutions is that attendance at big-name colleges and universities is virtually essential for reaching the top in later life,” he has noted. “The four institutions with the highest percentage of their undergraduates going on to receive Ph.D.’s are all small colleges, with less than 2,000 undergraduates each: Cal Tech, Harvey Mudd, Swarthmore and Reed. Cal Tech and Harvey Mudd have fewer than a thousand undergraduates each. Small colleges in fact dominate the top ten. Grinnell College has a higher percentage of its graduates [that] go on to receive Ph.D.’s than does either Harvard or Yale. Of the chief executive officers of the 50 largest American corporations surveyed in 2006, only four had Ivy League degrees.”

Why is that? At a liberal arts college like LaGrange College, you’ll be taught by professors, with degrees in hand, while at the Ivy Leagues and other elite colleges the ‘fixers’ targeted, you can expect a graduate assistant more desperate to earn his or her doctorate than a professor, who has no time for undergraduates.  That’s because it’s “publish or perish” for him or her, with little incentive to focus on student education.  For professors at LaGrange College, the overwhelming percentage of our evaluations comes from teaching, not on research or “prestige.” And my superiors love when I focus more on getting undergraduates involved in research, which gives them that extra edge for entering law school and graduate school, or for landing a good job.

Plus, those parents who pay top dollar for their kids make them dependent. Students from liberal arts colleges have to be more self-reliant, and therefore are more likely to get that good job on their own merits, as well as advance in that position.

“Kids from rich families often rely on help from their parents to obtain selective internships and high-paying entry-level jobs,” Thompson added. He found that for kids without those connected parents, the college is that network “that connect[s] these students to the most dynamic industries and jobs.”

My wife, also a teacher, commented on the scandal. “An elite college is like a diamond.  It has no real value, except by what you give it.” Given what I’ve seen of our hard-working students – rich or poor, as many of our kids are Pell-eligible – I’d take them any day over the cringe-worthy work ethic of these kids of the rich parents who broke the rules to give their kids an “edge.” I bet a smart employer and graduate school would also prefer the harder worker as well.